Caring for coral

Supporting the environment

Aramco is helping to rescue and rebuild important reefs in the coastal waters of the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico through grants by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Coral Reef Conservation Fund.

Coral reefs are home to numerous marine species and act as a natural barrier against coastal erosion for countless communities. Aramco is helping to rescue and rebuild important reefs in the coastal waters of the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico through grants by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Coral Reef Conservation Fund. Aramco supports grants in community-based efforts to improve the health and resilience of coral reefs in Florida, Hawai'i, Guam, American Samoa, and the Caribbean.

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Setting the Stage

Chapter 1

Coral reefs: A Valuable Source of Ecological Richness 

Coral populations have declined drastically over the past few years, particularly up and down the 358 mile reef system of the Florida Keys. A multitude of stressors including pollution, hurricanes, over-fishing, vessel groundings and a wide-spread disease has devastated reefs in the Florida Keys, resulting in a 90 percent loss of live coral.

While several changes have been made to increase the protection of these reefs and reduce these threats, unfortunately, invasive species have now taken over the system. State and federal coral reef managers realized that with this wide-spread system shift, it would be hard for reef building corals to recover on their own. If the Florida reef system was going to be preserved, corals were going to need to be rebuilt at a scale that had never before been attempted.

Unlike restoring wetlands or forests, coral reef restoration is a relatively new science. Experts in coral ecology were brought in to plan for what a natural reef needed to grow and thrive and to set restoration targets not just to restore the former reef, but to rebuild a more resilient reef able to grow and expand in today's ocean. Together, they established Mission Iconic Reefs – a plan that identified seven sections, approximately 260,000 square meters in total, of the Florida Keys reef track that represented the different types of reefs important to the overall ecosystem and established an action plan for restoring these key sites.

With a plan in place, Aramco has joined NFWF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through its Coral Reef Conservation Fund to prepare for this all important mission and to foster innovation and increased understanding as coral conservation projects move into uncharted waters in their efforts to rebuild the reefs. Aramco's experience and interest in marine environmental protection, in particular with deploying artificial reefs and management of coral reefs, now extends to Caring for Coral in U.S. waters.

Preparing for Restoration

Chapter 2

Complex Life Cycle of Corals

The amount of new coral outplants that will be required for an effort the size of Mission Iconic Reefs, the area of about 64 football fields, is staggering. In the first phase of the restoration effort alone, the plan calls for 235,479 coral outplants of different coral species, each with a diversity of genotypes to increase resilience. The plan also calls for 202,068 algae eating organisms like urchins and crabs to be added at each site to help the new coral colonies compete against their greatest competitor: macro-algae.
Some of these species have never been raised in human care before and none of the current nurseries that are propagating corals are producing at this level. This mission will require many partners and new breakthroughs in nursery rearing to be successful.
Florida Aquarium researchers are on the leading edge of this increase in capacity and innovation. They received a grant from the Coral Reef Conservation Fund to increase our understanding of urchin husbandry and to foster coral spawning in the laboratory. While corals can be propagated by 'fragmenting' a larger colony – coral spawning allows for increased genetic diversity and increased numbers of new coral babies that can be out-planted onto reefs.
With support from the Coral Reef Conservation Fund, the Florida Aquarium is working to raise hundreds of urchins for the first time in the laboratory and raise thousands of coral colonies to support the mission.

Juvenile elkhorn corals (A. palmata) currently growing at The Florida Aquarium, raised from larvae produced in the Induced Spawning Lab in 2020. Photo credit: Meghan Fellner, The Florida Aquarium
Juvenile elkhorn corals, raised from larvae produced in a Florida Aquarium facility, are currently growing at The Florida Aquarium. Photo credit: Meghan Fellner, The Florida Aquarium

Giving Corals a Head-Start

Chapter 3

Researchers Ready for Restoration

As dozens of organizations prepare to undertake Mission Iconic Reefs, it is imperative that the environment of each individual restoration site provides the greatest opportunity for success. Researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Hawai'i have been studying reef persistence and resilience for decades, and they know that poor water quality can impact growth and reproduction of corals.

Today, there is an increasing concern around a new generation of “coral zombies” that are living coral colonies but are not able to reproduce. For restoration at the scale of Mission Iconic Reefs to be effective, scientists need to ensure that water quality levels at the restoration sites will support reefs to not only grow but to spawn new gametes to 're-seed' neighboring reef sites. Scientists also know that restoration in an area that has been void of live corals will result in predation of the small coral outplants before they have a chance to grow into larger colonies.

Dr. Robert Richmond, University of Hawai'i, has a unique approach to understanding what corals need and what stressors can inhibit or even stop these corals from performing their normal functions of eating, growing and reproducing. Dr. Richmond takes a clinical approach, much like a human doctor, and examines lipid and protein reactions. Just like in a human body, coral bio-chemistry will change under different stressors like being covered with sediment, or having a pollutant in the area, and corals will expend energy trying to remove that sediment or repair cell damage caused by pollutants, energy needed for growth and reproduction.

Outplanted cluster of “plugs” of Orbicella sp. corals. Photo credit: Alex Neufeld
An outplanted cluster of Orbicella, a genus of stony corals native to the tropical western Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, are known for being major reef-builders. Photo credit: Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

Restoration Efforts

Chapter 4

Restoration Efforts Underway

Mission Iconic Reefs will be an ongoing coral restoration effort over several decades. One of the primary partners in growing out corals in ocean-based nurseries and then transferring these larger corals to the reef is the Coral Restoration Foundation.  The Coral Reef Conservation Fund has provided support to the Coral Restoration Foundation that will help fund an increase in their ocean coral nursery capacity and the reintroduction to the wild of around 7,000 corals from four reef-building species. The grant will also support beginning restoration using these corals on four reefs across a 2.5-acre footprint.

Assisting Large-Scale Restoration with Machine Learning

Chapter 5

Providing Managers with the Tools They Need

In the Florida Keys, restoration activities have grown beyond the scope of monitoring individual transplanted coral colonies. As state and federal managers and conservation groups join to take on the largest coral reef restoration effort ever attempted in the United States, they need to build new tools for the job.

Aramco's support in 2021 will help the Coral Restoration Foundation develop a web-based tool allowing restoration practitioners and managers to monitor the newly restored coral reefs at this larger scale. The use of large-scale photomosaics and machine learning to recognize and analyze corals will allow managers to efficiently track the restoration progress across multiple reefs.

Helping Coral Reefs Bounce Back Naturally

Chapter 6

Maintaining the Balance

In 2014 and 2015, a marine heatwave caused a state-wide coral bleaching event in Hawaii, resulting in up to 50 percent loss in coral cover in some locations. This bleaching event occurred against a backdrop of persistent local stressors, including over fishing and land-based pollution, which have historically threatened reefs. To address these local and global threats to reefs in Hawai'i, the State of Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources is undertaking a resilience-based approach to coral management by improving their understanding of the role of algae eating fish on reefs.

Herbivorous fish like parrotfish are the lawnmowers of the reef and graze down marine plants that can out-compete corals for space. Managing fish populations to levels that can sustain this ecological function will help increase the health and resilience of nearshore Hawaiian reefs.

Aramco support is helping to improve the health of coral reef ecosystems of Hawai'i with a grant to help managers understand how many parrotfish and other herbivorous fishes are needed on reefs to maintain the balance between algae and corals.

Long-spined sea urchins play an important role

Chapter 7

Keeping algae in check

In the last 20 years the conservation community has tried to raise sea urchins in captivity with limited success until recently.  One of the projects Aramco supported in 2023 builds on previous work by the University of Florida and the Florida Aquarium leading to a breakthrough in urchin propagation that cracked the larval settlement code in captivity.  This NFWF grant even established a ‘vet screening’ protocol to clear urchins for release into the wild.

Long-spined sea urchins play an important role in the health of a coral reef.  The urchins eat algae that can grow on the substrate. If an abundance of algae is present, then new coral babies will not settle from the water column and grow---they want a hard surface. If algae becomes out of control, it overtakes the existing coral on the reef.  A healthy population of long-spined sea urchins keeps the algae in check by mowing it down and maintaining balance.

Sea urchin propagation
Sea urchins raised at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, FL will support coral reef conservation efforts (Photo credit: University of Florida).

Unfortunately, in the 1980s there was a wide-spread die off of these urchins across the Caribbean. According to NFWF program staff, even 40 years later we have not come close to recovering their numbers, resulting in a significant amount of reef loss as a result.   As the organization starts large scale restoration efforts, restoring the urchin population is critical for outplanted new corals to grow and reproduce naturally.

The success of this project has released urchins back on the reef in the hundreds.  We need to start producing urchins in the thousands and tens of thousands to prepare for and keep pace with the Mission Iconic Reefs large restoration effort planned for the Florida Keys.  The project is starting a pipeline of urchins for grow-out and replanting.

Coral Reef Foundation (CRF) divers installing fragments of D. cylindrus in a CRF nursery. Photo credit: Alex Neufeld
Coral Restoration Foundation™ divers install fragments of a species of pillar coral that have been treated and cared for in a nursery to help in the restoration of pillar colonies along Florida reefs. Photo credit: Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™

Ensuring the future of coral reefs will not only require collective action by partners, but ground-breaking science and innovative thinking. Through our commitment to Caring for Coral, Aramco is supporting the latest research around coral ecosystem health and resilience-based management while working to protect, restore, and maintain the health of corals in the U.S. and worldwide.


Opening chapter images photo credit: Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™